Epistolary novels are works of prose fiction presented in the form of letters ("epistles"). Sometimes an epistolary novelist wants us to believe that he/she is merely an "editor" who has collected a group of private letters and published them (with or without their authors' permission). Other epistolary novels look much like other novels except for the inclusion of a letter-convention "frame." In all cases, epistolary novels add a layer of distance between the tale and its readers, and make certain kinds of authenticity claims.
The late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were the great age of epistolarly fiction in Britain. The form proliferated starting in the 1660s, but by the time of the French Revolution its use had dwindled markedly. (A few epistolary fictions continue to appear even today, but the form is usually considered atavistic now.)
This course will consider the functions and appeal of British epistolary fiction in its heydey, between the late seventeenth and the late eighteenth centuries, reading such authors as Aphra Behn, Elizabeth Singer Rowe, Samuel Richardson, and Frances Burney. Why, we shall ask, did the epistolary form take off to such a spectacular extent during the eighteenth century, what precisely made it so popular, and why did it fade from the scene when it did? What was at stake -- aesthetically, politically, and morally -- in producing novels that pretended to be made from private letters? What might account for the strong eighteenth-century association of epistolary fiction with women's voices and experiences? What part does eighteenth-century epistolary fiction play in later British and American literary history?
The class will be seminar-style, with careful reading and discussion paramount. Each student will give one oral presentation to the class accompanied by annotated bibliography, produce weekly written responses, and write one 10-12 page paper.